Cedar Walton, pianist and NEA jazz master, dies at 79

August 20, 2013

Cedar Walton, a pianist and composer who worked with almost every major jazz performer of his era, from John Coltrane to Art Blakey to Abbey Lincoln, and who was honored as a National Endowment for the Arts jazz master, died Aug. 19 at his home in Brooklyn. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by his record label, HighNote Records. The cause was not disclosed.

For more than 50 years, Mr. Walton was one of the most respected figures in jazz. He shared the stage as a young man with singer Billie Holiday and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and he continued to work until shortly before his death, inspiring younger jazz musicians, including trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Jeremy Pelt and bassist Christian McBride.

He appeared on more than 400 albums — including 60 as a leader — but somehow Mr. Walton remained something of an overlooked master, acknowledged by people in the jazz world but little known to the wider public.

In 2006, jazz critic Will Friedwald called Mr. Walton “one of the best pianists and composers” for the last half-century and asked why the National Endowment for the Arts had not yet named him a jazz master, the country highest honor for a jazz musician. Mr. Walton received the designation four years later.


For more than 50 years, pianist and composer Cedar Walton was one of the most respected figures in jazz. (Gene Martin/HighNote Records)

At the piano, Mr. Walton had an unfussy, straightforward style that always sounded fresh. There was something reflective in his playing, which was filled with shifting chords that gave his solos the chromatic quality of a prism. He never seemed to strike the wrong note.

After becoming established in New York in the 1950s, Mr. Walton worked with the renowned trombonist J.J. Johnson before joining the Jazztet, an influential group fronted by trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Benny Golson.

From 1961 to 1964, Mr. Walton held the piano chair in one of the most influential incarnations of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, an ensemble that turned out generations of jazz greats. Other members of the group at the time included trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and trombonist Curtis Fuller, along with Blakey on drums.

Mr. Walton wrote the title track of one of the Jazz Messengers’ most renowned albums, “Mosaic” (1961).

Mr. Walton accompanied Lincoln, the singer, in the 1960s and later had a long association with vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Throughout his career, he continued to write, producing a series of compositions that are still frequently performed, including “Bolivia,” “Firm Roots,” “Ojos de Rojo,” “Ugetsu” and “Mode for Joe,” written for saxophonist Joe Henderson.

Asked in 1987 about his approach to writing music, Mr. Walton told the Los Angeles Times: “I’ll say, ‘Hey, man, dig this!’ and then play something. If you call that writing, I’m writing all the time.”

Cedar Anthony Walton Jr. was born on Jan. 17, 1934, in Dallas. He learned piano from his mother, a schoolteacher; his father ran a restaurant. Traveling musicians sometimes stayed at the house.

“I was only about 8, and I was supposed to be asleep,” he told the Dallas Morning News in 2002. “But when I heard this pianist, I was fascinated, totally mesmerized with his style. Man, I wish today I knew who that guy was, because after I heard him, I became a fanatic about music.”

Mr. Walton attended the University of Denver, where he played in local clubs with visiting jazz stars. He moved to New York in 1955, then spent two years with an Army band in Germany before returning to New York and embarking on his career.

Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Martha Walton, and four children from previous relationships. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Mr. Walton is sometimes remembered for the recording that got away. In 1959, the saxophonist Coltrane called on Mr. Walton to record an early version of “Giant Steps,” a tune that helped reshape the direction of jazz because of its revolutionary chord structure.

When Coltrane wanted to record a new version of “Giant Steps” later, Mr. Walton was on the road, and Tommy Flanagan ended up being the pianist on the final recording. Mr. Walton’s contributions remained in a vault until the late 1990s.

In a 2011 interview with jazz journalist Marc Myers, Mr. Walton recalled the stunning impact of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” at the time.

“He was sitting on his couch behind me with his saxophone,” Mr. Walton said. “Hearing that sound emanate from right behind me was so moving and awe-inspiring. I felt like I was in the presence of God. That’s without exaggeration. It was so perfect, and his sound went right to my heart.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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